House Speaker Nancy Pelosi knows how government works. She has ample institutional authority, and she knows how to wield it. But the days when Pelosi could reliably corral her caucus are over. In the Obama years, Pelosi and her fellow Democrats expanded the rules of political engagement, blurring the lines between political disagreements and personal attacks. Now those new rules are being turned against her.
Pelosi is currently engaged in what promises to become a full-blown war with a would-be tetrarchy of prominent progressive House members: Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world, but they didn’t have any following,” she said of this vexing quadrumvirate. “They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.” Pelosi was lamenting the modest progressive revolt that nonetheless helped scuttle the House Democratic effort to unite behind an alternative to the Senate’s bipartisan emergency border package. The “squad,” as they call themselves, sacrificed the good for the perfect, and they lost. They forced moderate Democrats into the GOP’s hands, and delivered Pelosi a “striking defeat.”
This isn’t the first time the “squad” has exerted its influence over the Speaker. Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow progressives trampled all over House leadership’s efforts to frame a campaign-finance reform and anti-corruption bill (deemed H.R. 1 to connote its importance) in favor of their embarrassing Green New Deal legislation. They also led the successful effort to thwart a resolution condemning the imminently condemnable anti-Semitism routinely displayed by Rep. Omar, forcing Pelosi to settle instead for the vaguest of watered-down resolutions looking askance at “hate.”
Pelosi is right. These four representatives don’t have much institutional authority. What influence they wield is derived from their grassroots following and the press, but that’s nothing to sneeze at. Moreover, they have demonstrated their mastery of the moment by deploying a tactic Pelosi herself used to great effect: spurious accusations of racism.
Ocasio-Cortez, who spent Wednesday complaining that her congressional committee assignments might have been designed by leadership to keep her “busy” and out of the way, unleashed a disproportionate retaliatory strike on the Speaker. “The persistent singling out,” she said, “it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful—the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.” The implication is blindingly clear: Pelosi’s criticisms of Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues are illegitimate because they are tainted with racial animus.
AOC isn’t out on this limb alone. “The thing that upsets the occupant of the White House, his goons in the Republican Party, many of our colleagues in the Democratic Party,” Rep. Omar recently asserted, “is that they cannot stand that a refugee, a black woman, an immigrant, a Muslim shows up in Congress thinking she’s equal to them.”
It’s a struggle to summon up sympathy for the embattled Speaker. She’s used these sordid tactics to her own advantage when it suited her. During the 2012 election cycle, Pelosi accused Mitt Romney of intentionally seeking to be booed in an appearance before an NAACP audience just to rile up his supporters. She claimed the former Republican presidential nominee had little to no respect for women. She said that Jews were “being exploited” by Republicans who claimed to support Israel more than did Barack Obama. When Paul Ryan dedicated himself to addressing transgenerational poverty “in our inner cities, in particular,” (a construction Barack Obama also used) Pelosi called the comments “shameful” and joined her colleagues who insisted that Ryan’s description of American urban centers was coded language to describe African-Americans.
Joe Biden, too, held this same tiger by the ears right up until it got the better of him. Did the then-vice president of the United States go too far when he told a mixed-race audience in 2012 that the Republican ticket wanted to “put y’all back in chains?” Barack Obama’s reelection campaign didn’t think so, though they laughably insisted that Biden was speaking metaphorically of Romney’s financial policy preferences. If Biden had offended the Obama campaign’s sense of decorum, its surrogates hadn’t received the memo. Obama’s “Truth Team” surrogate, Virginia state Sen. Louise Lucas, also insisted that Mitt Romney actively appealed to voters “who don’t like a black man in the White House.” The press, too, performed acts of divination to racialize Romney’s campaign themes. When Romney attacked the Obama administration for supporting cuts to Medicare and opposing work and job-training requirements to qualify for welfare, the attacks were said to have “racial overtones” because they appealed to “highly racialized terms.”
And now the monster has come for Biden. For the sin of taking pride in working with segregationist Democratic senators who also happened to chair the Senate Agriculture and Judiciary committees, respectively, Biden has been attacked as a closet racist (or, at least, being suspiciously comfortable with that sort). The former senator has endured a conspicuously timed deluge of new scrutiny involving how he dealt with racial matters during his decades in office. From his support for an anti-crime bill at a time when rates of violent crime were twice what they are today to his opposition to forced busing, The Week’s Ryan Cooper observed, “Biden has repeatedly wielded his power to devastate the black community.” Given “Biden’s considerable complicity in racial injustice,” the New Yorker’s Eric Levitz deemed him “unfit for rehabilitation.” To Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy, Biden’s comments about his racially backward colleagues were evidence of his nostalgia for “a time when segregationists controlled committees and a total of zero senators were women.”
The accusations that Pelosi and Biden harbor racial animus in their hearts are certainly unfair, but they are no more flippant and opportunistic than the attacks on Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. That frivolity surely contributed to the right’s casual dismissal of their more racially sensitive critics when they were confronted with the real thing in their midst. The monster to which Democrats gave life over this decade has turned against its creators. That’s nothing to celebrate, but the left only has itself to blame.